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Out of the Frying Pan…

Less than a month ago, Allen Weh, the freshly installed chairman of the New Mexico Republican Party, was in Baghdad, serving as chief of staff of a U.S. Central Command team charged with rebuilding the Iraqi security forces. [IMGCAP(1)]

When the country’s at war, “I take my musket off the shelf and go offer my services. It’s no different than in 1776,” explained the 61-year-old Weh, who said it was a battle just to convince Pentagon officials to recall a man his age.

About a week before he was due to return to the United States, Weh — whose service in the Marine Corps Reserve has included tours in Vietnam, Somalia and a stint on active duty during the Persian Gulf War — answered a different sort of call to arms.

This time, it seemed, his help was required on the home front. On the phone was Steve Bell, Sen. Pete Domenici’s (R-N.M.) chief of staff, asking Weh if he’d consider running for state party leader.

“As far as I’m concerned, if something needs to be done I’m going to do it,” said Weh, who conceded that after nine months of sleeping an average of five hours a night he’d been “looking forward to a break.”

But while he may have left one battle zone behind, some political observers say the retired colonel and three-time Purple Heart recipient could be headed into another hot spot. After all, Weh seizes the reins of a state party that has been wracked by factionalism. Weh’s predecessor, state Sen. Ramsay Gorham (R), abruptly resigned late last month amid concerns that her embattled chairmanship could have a negative impact on GOP candidates. In the year since her election, Gorham and her supporters had tussled with those loyal to former GOP Chairman John Dendahl, whom Gorham defeated in May 2003 party elections. President Bush’s campaign was widely believed to have lost confidence in the state party under Gorham.

“If he’s used to dealing with Shia and Sunni, we’ve got plenty of factions here for him,” quipped political consultant Joe Monahan, who operates a Web site on New Mexico politics. “His job is to take control of a party that really was imploding.”

But Weh said he is not worried.

“All these people on both sides, I have no heartburn with, and they don’t have any heartburn with me,” said Weh, adding that he was “not involved in the food fight.”

In an early sign of Weh’s take-no-prisoners approach, his first move after his April 17 election was to dismiss all appointive members of the executive committee. Then, late last week, he asked the state party’s staff to resign.

“Given all the factionalized infighting that had occurred in the state party over the previous year … I heard just enough to know that you had to start clean to get this thing moving in a forward direction,” Weh said. He noted that he’d also reached out to both Dendahl and Gorham for advice, though Gorham has so far declined to return his call.

Some GOPers, such as former state Rep. George Buffett, who is challenging Republican National Committeeman Mickey Barnett for the national party post, said that unless Weh imposes order, “the fight that is going on” in the party “will affect all the elections” in the fall, including Bush’s re-election effort in a state he lost by a mere 366 votes four years ago. But Bush-Cheney officials are clearly pleased with Weh’s selection.

“He believes in God and country and family,” gushed John Sanchez, the campaign’s Southwest regional chairman, adding that his election “will definitely be an improvement.”

While Weh kept a low profile in the party in the past, the airline charter company founder and CEO has established himself as a prolific New Mexico GOP fundraiser since the days when, fresh out of graduate school at the University of New Mexico, he served as a “foot soldier” for Domenici’s inaugural 1972 Senate bid.

Until recently, Weh was Rep. Heather Wilson’s (R-N.M.) finance co-chairman, helping raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for the four-term Congresswoman’s campaigns. During Bush’s presidential campaign he was the New Mexico Victory 2000 co-chairman, as well as a member of Bush’s Land of Enchantment finance committee.

When it came time to put forward names of possible Gorham replacements, Weh surfaced as a top pick of the New Mexico Republican Congressional delegation, Wilson said.

Weh, who will serve out the remainder of Gorham’s term, which ends in May 2005, has not decided whether he will seek re-election to a full two-year term next year.

“You got to get things together and get through November. We do all that and then I’ll think about whether this has been such a great experience that I want to stick around,” says the “Raspberry Man,” who sells homegrown berries out of the back of his Dodge Dakota pickup truck at a local farmer’s market.

For the moment, Land of Enchantment GOPers on both sides of the the Gorham-Dendahl divide appear content with their new chief, touting Weh as a tough but fair leader capable of instilling a no-nonsense military discipline on the party’s disparate factions.

“He’s going to bring unity back to the party,” said Ken Zangara, a Gorham supporter.

Likewise, Barnett, a close ally of Dendahl’s, went so far as to cast Weh’s election in messianic terms. “In a way, he will be the savior for the GOP,” he said.

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